More controversy around vouchers, DeVos

By: - September 17, 2019 9:13 pm
Betsy DeVos at a podium at the US Dept of Education

Sec. Betsy DeVos (US Department of Education photo)

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s “back-to-school” tour kickoff at a private Milwaukee voucher school triggered a passionate response from public-school advocates and voucher-school defenders alike.

In her speech at St. Marcus Lutheran School, DeVos denounced “the education cabal” that “puts other issues above what’s right for students.” DeVos blamed school administrators for wasting money and failing to educate America’s children in “government-assigned schools” and praised school-voucher programs that have taxpayers cover  tuition for parents to send their children to private schools.

DeVos told students and staff at St. Marcus that she decided to come to “the birthplace of education freedom” to demonstrate that “education freedom policies work.” 

But Milwaukee’s 30-year voucher experiment has not yielded results that are clearly better than the public schools.

According to the latest test results reported by the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) in 2018-2019 the percentage of students scoring proficient or advanced on the Forward, ACT with writing and DLM assessments in English and language arts was 40.1% for public school students versus 20.7% for voucher students. In math 41% of public school students scored proficient or advanced, versus 17.8% for voucher students.

To be fair, the statewide numbers are not that illuminating. Voucher advocates have objected to the way DPI presented the data, pointing to a higher number of low-income students served by voucher schools, and essentially arguing that the higher scores of public school students are entirely accounted for by the state’s higher-income students. 

Jim Bender of School Choice Wisconsin called DPI’s release of partial data “a troubling maneuver.”

“As required by statute, DPI should have released all the data at the same time,” Bender wrote in a press release that gave the state agency “an F on transparency”.

In a chart comparing low-income kids in the school-voucher programs in Racine and Milwaukee to their “low-income” and “full-income” public-school peers, School Choice Wisconsin presents more detailed data to argue that voucher students are outperforming public school students, except when compared to high-income students statewide.

But this, too, is misleading. The income level to qualify for the Milwaukee and Racine Parental Choice programs is 300% of poverty in year one (with no income cap for students who remain in the program in subsequent years). In the statewide Parental Choice Program the income cap for vouchers is 220% of poverty. Low-income families in the public schools, defined as those who qualify for free and reduced lunch, are poorer, at 180% of the poverty level. 

We don’t know the income levels of students who remain in voucher schools for more than one year, because their families are not required to report income to qualify for a school voucher after year one. Some voucher-school students are very poor. Others may not face financial hardship but qualify for an ongoing public subsidy for private-school tuition. Of the 7,140 students who participated in the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program last year, 5,471—about 77%— were already enrolled in a private school in the previous year.

Further complicating the data on voucher success is that fact that the public schools are required to meet the needs of students with disabilities, who comprise 14% of the population, compared with 2% of the population of voucher schools. 

Voucher schools, unlike public schools, are not required to give statewide assessments to all students, and about 10 percent of their students are not included in the reported scores.

These factors must be taken into consideration to get a full picture of the relative achievement of voucher versus public-school kids.

Over the last 30 years of Wisconsin’s school-voucher experiment, “Both the test score releases and the results of the state-mandated evaluation demonstrated that the [Milwaukee Parental Choice Program]  is having little substantively significant positive impact on academic achievement in Milwaukee,” writes Michael Ford (UW-Oshkosh professor and former vice president of School Choice Wisconsin) in his book The Consequences of Governance Fragmentation: Milwaukee’s School Voucher Legacy.

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Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine where she worked for many years from both Madison and Washington, DC. Shortly after Donald Trump took office she moved with her family to Oaxaca, Mexico, and covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Trump. Conniff is the author of "Milked: How an American Crisis Brought Together Midwestern Dairy Farmers and Mexican Workers" which won the 2022 Studs and Ida Terkel award from The New Press. She is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and three daughters.